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Speeding down I-95 near Ridgeland? You're being watched and possibly ticketed

FILE: Ridgeland Police Officer David Swinehamer starts the computer program that runs the iTraffic system inside a recreational vehicle August 17, 2010. It was parked at the Ridgeland Police Department for demonstration purposes.
FILE: Ridgeland Police Officer David Swinehamer starts the computer program that runs the iTraffic system inside a recreational vehicle August 17, 2010. It was parked at the Ridgeland Police Department for demonstration purposes. Jonathan Dyer

Town of Ridgeland officials are unfazed by a new state law that seemed intended specifically to end their plans to use traffic cameras to enforce speeding laws on eight miles of Interstate 95.

"I don't know that they understood what we were proposing," Town Administrator Jason Taylor said Tuesday during a public meeting offering residents a sneak peek at the town's new traffic camera system. "I think they thought we were going to be mounting a camera to a pole. We tend to agree that municipalities shouldn't be using unmanned cameras, but our system obviously isn't a camera mounted to a pole."

Nearly two weeks ago, Ridgeland became the first municipality in South Carolina to enforce speeding laws using automated traffic cameras, despite a state law crafted in July that allows speeding or traffic cameras only in emergencies and stipulates that citations based "solely on photographic evidence" be issued in person.

After reviewing the new law, Ridgeland Mayor Gary Hodges said town officials determined it does not apply to their program.

"It is very clear that that law only applies to ... still photographs taken using unmanned cameras," Hodges said. "That's not what our program is."

Hodges said that because a Ridgeland police officer is manning the camera and radar systems and observes the violation as it occurs, the speeding ticket is not based solely on photographic evidence. Therefore, the town is exempt from the provision banning citations from being mailed and not issued in person, he said.

HOW IT WORKS

From behind a desk inside a 22-foot RV purchased by the town, Ridgeland police officer David Swinehamer watches as two computer monitors relay real-time information from camera and radar equipment on tripods alongside the interstate.

As each vehicle passes, its speed is recorded. The camera is triggered if a vehicle is traveling 80 mph or faster, snapping a photograph of the offending driver and the vehicle's license plate.

Swinehamer then compares the image of the driver to the driver's license photo of the vehicle's registered owner. If they are a match, a speeding ticket is mailed to the driver's home. If the driver isn't the vehicle's registered owner or the photograph isn't clear, no ticket is issued.

Swinehamer said the new equipment has clocked drivers going as fast as 111 mph and captured some dangerous driving habits.

"Last week, I saw two different women applying their make-up going about 85 mph," he said.

About 13 states use speed cameras, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

HOW THE MONEY IS DIVIDED

In May, town officials signed a five-year deal with iTraffic, then located in Bluffton, to set up cameras along Ridgeland's stretch of the interstate.

As part of the deal, iTraffic moved its headquarters to Ridgeland and paid to install and operate the system including paying Swinehamer's salary and hiring one administrator.The town can opt out of the contract within 90 days without penalty, according to town officials.

In return, Ridgeland agreed to split the ticket revenue with the company to help it recoup startup costs. iTraffic officials have declined to say how much it cost to get the system running. The town must also remit 40 percent of the proceeds from eachticket to the S.C. Treasurer's Office, according to state law.

'PAYING THE BILLS'

Using the system, Swinehamer said he could issue many more citations than could an officer performing conventional traffic stops.

"If you see a pack of four cars traveling 85 mph, an officer could only pull over one of those cars," Swinehamer said. "Using this system, I can issue citations to all four drivers."

Hodges dismissed the notion that the cameras would be used to fill the town's coffers but said revenue generated by the program would help recoup more than $1 million Ridgeland spends each year policing and responding to car crashes on I-95.

"We're not trying to get rich here, we're just trying to pay the bills," Hodges said. "We spend over $1.1 million every year on public safety on that freeway between police, fire and EMS ... with no help from the federal government or from the state."

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